I volunteered for three days at a refugee camp in Calais. The dire conditions, and the indifference of officialdom, are shameful, says Suzanne Harrington
I DRIVE to Dover with three friends, and catch the early morning ferry to Calais. We have made contact with a local charity, L’Auberge des Migrants, who are at the frontline helping those in the refugee camp. We will volunteer for a few days at their rented warehouse. All that’s required is to sign an insurance form, put on a hi-vis vest, and begin the Sisyphean task of unpacking the roof-high mountains of boxes and bags, which are full of donations from all over the UK and Ireland, and put them in order.
Waterproofs, warm jumpers, boots, socks, blankets, tents and tarps need to be organised by size, and separated from the well-meaning, but insane, donations, such as ladies’ summer frocks and sandals. What’s needed is outdoor gear, and warm clothes. The warehouse is brimming, but there are not enough people to sort everything and distribute it.
The numbers of volunteers fluctuate — this morning there are 20. The operation is run on donations and voluntary labour; logistically, it is astonishingly well-organised, given that there are no warehouse managers, and a workforce that comes and goes, with just a small handful of permanent volunteers (who all say the same thing — they came to help for a few days and felt compelled to stay, sleeping in vans and caravans, and anywhere they can). Almost everyone is English. The atmosphere is warm and inclusive and focused.
I drive over to the camp, which I first visited a few week’s previously. Today, it’s raining. Even since mid-September, the deterioration of the site is shocking. Thick mud swamps everywhere, and there are many more people — the current estimate is 6,000. Although they are predominantly male, there are a lot more women and small children than before, squelching through conditions of appalling squalor and deprivation.
It is wet and cold and there are few of the warm, friendly smiles from my last visit — people seem miserable and downward-looking. Many have come from climates where ‘winter’ means putting on a shirt. Many are negotiating endless liquid mud in bare feet and flip flops. New arrivals have nothing other than the inadequate clothes on their backs.
There is human excrement visible, because there are not enough toilets (the UN High Commission for Refugees considers an emergency ratio to be 25 people to one toilet — here, the ratio is more like 70 people to one toilet). This could easily be rectified by the provision of more portaloos, just as the Somme-like mud could be neutralised with a few tons of woodchips.
It’s not rocket science, but other than grassroots volunteers, nobody official is doing anything. There are no showers; there have been reports of lice and scabies. Reports of TB. Volunteers on site do their best to provide new arrivals with tents and blankets. Where is the Red Cross, Save the Children, the UN?
We bump into Samer, whom we met last time, by the Jungle Books library. He greets us with hugs and smiles and calls of “Welcome!”. A political scientist from Sudan, he made the journey to Calais via people smugglers, on a boat on which many people died, having walked for weeks before boarding. He left his pregnant wife and two children back in Sudan; he hopes to send for them. He misses them dreadfully.
Every night, he walks two and a half hours to the Channel Tunnel, in the hope of stowing away to England, then two and a half hours back to the camp. The previous night, he tells us how three people — fellow Sudanese — died in the attempt. “I don’t want help,” he says. “I want freedom.” Samer’s health and spirits have deteriorated since our last visit — he has a hacking cough, and is visibly weaker and more downcast. He shows us the makeshift structure where he and 25 others cook on a tiny camping stove. They have run out of gas. We go with him to one of the Afghani tea shops, full of damp, tired men recharging their phones — almost everyone here has a phone, which is their lifeline — and having a cup of tea. Many men are injured, from having tried to jump on the train — on crutches, or wrapped in makeshift bandages made from towels.
Outside the camp, a local resident has opened the wifi in his house, and allows people from the camp to congregate in his garden to use it. Pretty much everyone else local seems hostile to the migrants and refugees, however. Calais town feels depressed and unfriendly. In a café, a waiter tells us that police have been drafted from as far as Marseille. We saw them up close on our last visit, when they were lobbing tear gas into densely tented areas of the camp. In the past weeks, ever-higher razor-wired fences have been erected on motorways near the camp, adding to the dystopian inhumanity of it all.
A volunteer comes to the warehouse from the camp with an urgent list. A Kurdish family — mum, dad, granny, 12-year-old twin girls and a baby of 13 months — have just arrived after a horrendous journey from Syria, without possessions, passports, or even baby milk. I gather clothes for the children, as if for my own children’s Christmas presents, and write ‘with love’ on it, which feels hopelessly inadequate and sentimental in such a dire situation.
After lunch at the warehouse — provided daily for the volunteers by a local French ashram — a convoy of vans turns up, full of food and blankets from various Muslim communities in Sheffield, Leicester, Preston, Glasgow. Everyone pitches in to make up food parcels in binliners at breakneck speed, filling each bag with cooking oil, rice, bread, tins and packets for distribution at the camp, before the men catch their ferry home.
Back at the camp, surplus sweatshirts from Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’ exhibition are being distributed — the artist has already provided wooden structures in what he has called ‘Dismalaid’. Refugees wearing ‘Dismaland’ across their chests provide grim irony. We find Samer again and give him medicine and a gas bottle, which he says will last 20 days. And, in a gesture of well-meaning futility, we give him some mejdool dates. He needs medical intervention and a work visa, not a box of dates.
I see a lot that day. A man in broken sandals making his way slowly through the mud, carrying plastic buckets of water from a distant standpipe. A little boy crying with toothache. A small girl with vacant eyes. Hundreds of men patiently queuing for food. A woman trying to push a buggy through the mud. This is in France, one of the richest countries on Earth.
Having met some newly arrived Eritrean men the day before, we bring a bagful of men’s boots and coats to the camp. This is not warehouse protocol — individual distribution is discouraged, as the need is so great that mass distribution is fairer and more dignified. But these Eritrean arrivals are in flip flops, and without coats. We find them, and my car is immediately surrounded by dozens of other men in almost as desperate need.
We distribute what we have, and are humbled by the dignity we encounter. Not everyone gets a pair of boots. Many men are walking around in shoes that are the wrong size, their heels folded under to avoid rubbing. We point to the bare feet of the men in flip flops and try to prioritise, and end up giving away our own wellies, as well.
Very little would sort this entire situation out. That this level of suffering is happening on our doorstep for purely political reasons — with neither France nor Britain taking responsibility — is a disgrace. As is Ireland’s offer to take in 4,000 people, which is nowhere near enough.
We drive back to our lives, trying to process what we have seen. Back home, we cannot get it out of our minds.
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